May 29 2012

Reading Aczel’s Mystery of the Aleph (part 2)

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This is some historical background on the Kabbalah. Once more, from The Mystery Of The Aleph by Amir D. Aczel.

“[After the Second Exile following the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70], the Jewish leadership dispersed in Judaea, and a number of sages settled in the town of Yavne, away from the city of Jerusalem in which Jews were now forbidden to reside. These first rabbis, replacing the priests of the temple, established an academy of learning. Among them was someone who was to become a great spiritual leader of the Jews: Rabbi Joseph ben Akiva (c. A.D. 50-132).

“Rabbi Akiva wrote a collection of papers called Maaseh Merkava, or The Way Of The Chariot. The rabbi’s writings taught the believers a new way to spirituality. His method consisted of creating visual images of heavenly palaces, whose purpose was to induce meditation and through it closeness to the Divine.

“Rabbi Akiva had apparently chanced upon a practice that was almost too intense for the human mind. The meditations the rabbi prescribed called for inducement of out-of-body experiences, altered mental states, and heights of ecstasy not previously known in Western culture. While the visions of the heavenly palaces on the way to the One were vivid and intense, Rabbi Akiva exhorted his students not to succumb to hallucinations or lose their grasp on reality. “When you enter the pure stones of marble [a stage of meditation],” he wrote, “do not say ‘Water! Water!’ for the Psalm tells us, ‘He who speaks falsely will not be established before my eyes.'”

“The rabbi used biblical passages and chants he composed himself as vehicles for achieving meditative states of mind. One of these devices was an infinitely bright light the students visualized, symbolizing the chaluk, or robe, which covered God when he appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai. In their meditations, the students strove to achieve the intensity of Moses as he witnessed the robed figure of God.

“According to legend, Rabbi Akiva and three of his colleagues entered the palaces of meditation together. Their experience was so intense that the first, Rabbi Ben Azai, gazed at the infinite light and died, for his soul so longed for the source of light that he instantly shed his physical body and was no more. The second, Rabbi Ben Abuya, looked at the divine light and saw two gods instead of one. He became an apostate. The third, Rabbi Ben Zoma, glanced at the infinite light of God’s robe and lost his mind, for he could not reconcile ordinary life with his vision. Only Rabbi Akiva survived the experience.

“The work of Rabbi Akiva was studied by generations of Jewish scholars in the Diaspora over the following centuries. These studies took place in strict secrecy for a number of reasons. First, the intensity of the experiences were considered dangerous for the inexperienced. And second, the Jews were not masters of their land – whether in Palestine or the lands of the Diaspora – and their rulers might not have looked favorably upon Jews dabbling in mysticism. The mystics therefore covered up their work and often distorted their writings to confuse the uninitiated. To insure the integrity of the tradition, it was passed orally from master to student.

“In the tenth century, the Babylonian school of Hai Gaon (A.D. 939-1038) focused the meditations introduced by Rabbi Akiva and his followers on individual expansion of spiritual consciousness rather than on altered mental states. In Palestine and in Europe, the mystical meditations remained in the spirit of the Maaseh Merkava…In the eleventh century in Spain, the mystic Solomon Ibn Gabirol gave a name to the Jewish system of secret mysticism and meditations. He called it Kabbalah: the ‘received’ tradition of the Jews.”

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